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A few weeks ago, an FBI spokesman offered The Orange County Register a less-than-dramatic news flash: the bureau is monitoring the activities of communist agents in Little Saigon. The news that the FBI monitors foreign agents and that some of those agents might operate in Little Saigon should surprise no one. But in the context of 15,000-person-strong demonstrations and hysterical attacks on communists, the Register's sensational story added new urgency-and, for some, credibility-to the massive demonstrations outside the video store of Truong Van Tran, a man many demonstrators have labeled a communist. "It doesn't take much to be called a communist," said Westminster police Lieutenant Bill Lewis. Tran's crime was to hang a poster of Ho Chi Minh and a Vietnamese flag on the back wall of his Hi Tek TV and Video store. But Lewis complained that the Register's story about the presence of communist spies-accompanying stories about the city's high-profile protests-has only raised the level of paranoia in the already paranoid Little Saigon.
The danger isn't hypothetical: in Little Saigon, being called a communist can get you killed. While the FBI boasts of its ability to track communist spies in Little Saigon-many of whom apparently assume the identity of jailed or dead ex-South Vietnamese officials-the agency prefers not to discuss a far-more-serious threat to life and liberty in the Vietnamese community: right-wing extremists culled from the ranks of Vietnamese immigrants with U.S.-supplied training in the art of terror. Such groups are suspected of being responsible for at least five unsolved murders in Vietnamese communities throughout the U.S. since the early 1980s-all of them execution-style killings of Vietnamese journalists.
The FBI hasn't ignored Little Saigon however. As recently as two years ago, the FBI went so far as to pay for advertisements in Nguoi Viet Daily News and other Vietnamese-language newspapers across the country, asking readers to inform on suspected communist spies. Would-be informants were instructed to call a Mr. Bo Cau at a Bay Area telephone number. For weeks, the FBI's hot line was inundated with Vietnamese callers taking advantage of the chance to accuse one another of spying for Hanoi.
To the outside world, including the FBI, Little Saigon is an impenetrable world of exiles, organized crime and extreme anti-communist politics. Unlike many other Vietnamese enclaves in the United States, its residents include not only refugees who fled Vietnam's communist regime, but also scores of former high-ranking military officers and officials of the South Vietnamese government. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the killings of political dissidents in neighborhoods like Little Saigon have stopped, according to a 1994 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). What hasn't stopped is the fear that the killings will start anew-perhaps set off by the kind of anti-communist hysteria sweeping Little Saigon over the past several weeks.
One of the Vietnamese journalists who managed to survive the wave of terror is Yen Ngoc Do, former editor of Little Saigon's Nguoi Viet Daily News. In April 1990, Do's name turned up on a hit list circulated by anti-communists in Little Saigon. Do's troubles started when a local television broadcast he produced briefly-and inadvertently-aired the image of a Vietnamese flag. According to the CPJ report, an unidentified group threatened to execute Do and other Vietnamese-community leaders on the anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
The paper took the threat seriously. The year before, a Nguoi Viet delivery truck parked in front of the newspaper office had been set ablaze. Scrawled on the wall of the building was the following message: "Nguoi Viet, if you are VC [Viet Cong], we kill." Do's last offense as editor was to be quoted in a New York Times article about companies doing business in Vietnam. On Sept. 28, 1994, following an angry protest and threatened boycott by 300 people, he resigned, although he retained his post as Nguoi Viet's publisher.
Do appeared downright nervous while being interviewed last week. His hands shook continuously as he spoke. He refused to discuss his resignation in detail. "I didn't want to invite any more trouble, so I resigned," he said evasively. "There is freedom to publish here, but not freedom of expression. There is no room to disagree in this community."
Although few things are more dangerous than being branded a communist in Little Saigon, Tran seems strangely unworried about his predicament. Instead, Tran, 37, insists he's just like most of his neighbors in Little Saigon. In 1980, like millions of others, he fled Vietnam on a rickety wooden vessel crammed with 90 people. After four months in a Thai refugee camp, the then-17-year-old Tran arrived in Little Saigon, where he met his future wife, Kim Nguyen. In America, the couple prospered. Tran learned how to fix televisions and VCRs and opened Hi Tek TV and Video in a mini-mall at the corner of Bolsa and Bushard in Westminster. To complete their pursuit of the picture-perfect American Dream, they have raised two children. Like many other Vietnamese-Americans, the couple gave their kids European-sounding first names, Fritzi and Don Washington-the latter after the American revolutionary leader.
Meanwhile, curiosity about Vietnamese history led Tran to read books about the life of Ho Chi Minh. Last November, Tran finally cashed in on his interest in Ho and paid a first-time visit to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Like many American visitors, including several U.S. congressmen who arrived after the U.S. government normalized relations with Vietnam in 1994, Tran found Hanoi to be a beautiful city full of friendly people who liked Americans. More to the point, Vietnam seemed much less repressive and impoverished than the country he remembered fleeing 18 years earlier. The day after he returned from Hanoi, Tran decided to hang the portrait of Ho Chi Minh in his store and risk the worst label that could be pinned to a Vietnamese in Little Saigon: being a communist.